I was poking around the CIA World Factbook (doesn’t everyone?) and came across an interesting page that listed "miscellaneous geographic information of significance not included elsewhere." That’s wonderful, I thought, a page of international odds-and-ends that didn’t fit within the book’s prescribed format. I live for moments like that.
It listed little tidbits on just about every nation around the globe. My mind wandered over to the entry for Djibouti:
strategic location near world’s busiest shipping lanes and close to Arabian oilfields; terminus of rail traffic into Ethiopia; mostly wasteland; Lac Assal (Lake Assal) is the lowest point in Africa and the saltiest lake in the world
That’s a lot of miscellany for such a tiny nation, a place slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Massachusetts and populated by fewer than a million residents. I was fascinated by the thought of Lac Assal although seeing a nation described as "mostly wasteland" amused me as well. I’m sure the residents wouldn’t endorse that characterization.
Sources agree that Lac Assal is the lowest point of elevation in Africa. However, there’s a variation in its recorded altitude which seems to center at about -155 metres (-509 feet) give or take a few metres. Assal is a crater lake on the end of a rift valley formed along a geologic fault. The plates split apart, a volcano created a crater, and a depression formed well below sea level. Any water that finds its way into the valley and the crater has no way to escape. Lac Assal doesn’t have an outlet to the sea.
The salinity has become intense due to minerals eroding from the surrounding terrain that washes down into the lake and remains there, while the water evaporates. This is typical of endorheic basins — the same condition exists in Utah’s Great Salt Lake (my visit). The CIA referred to Lac Assal as the "saltiest lake in the world" and that may be true, although Don Juan Pond in Antarctica is allegedly saltier. Lake? Pond? Whatever. Lac Assal is really salty and it’s a source of industry for the area. Huge salt flats are clearly visible on the northwest side of the satellite image.
That’s all interesting, however I’m most fascinated by its proximity to the sea. Maybe 10 kilometres separates Lac Assal from Ghoubbet El Kharab (or Lake or Bay of Ghoubet). Take a close look at the eastern edge of Ghoubbet El Kharab. It is connected to the Gulf of Tadjoura by a narrow passageway, which in turn is connected to the Gulf of Aden. Thus, the surface of Ghoubbet El Kharab would be at sea level. The lowest point in Africa is a mere ten klicks away! One narrow ridge of stone is all that separates Africa’s lowpoint from being inundated by the sea.
In fact, Ghoubbet El Kharab is Lac Assal’s main source of water. Certainly whatever rain falls within the basin, as lacking as that may be, would flow into the lake. Much more water seeps through fissures in the stone wall between Ghoubbet El Kharab and Lac Assal. The stone separating the two features acts as a dam with a crack in it.
Tourists visit Lac Assal generally in winter. The temperature can hit 50° Celsius (122° Fahrenheit) in the summer, and become truly life threatening. There are other hazards. Djibouti was involved in a civil war between 1991 and 1994 and matériel still remains scattered throughout the countryside. The United States Embassy issued a security message in 2012 after a boy was injured by a land mine nearby (map). So if you go — and I hope someday some of you do — time it right and stick to the roads. And take lots of photos.
The article on Public Streets seemed generate more than the usual amount of interest and lots of great comments, as well as a hint of familiarity. Input from loyal reader David Overton sent me down an interesting tangent. He mentioned No Name Street, which he believed might be "another contender for ‘laziest street name’”. He also included a link to the photographic evidence. Thankfully the original photographer was generous enough to include a Creative Commons license so I was able to embed the image directly within this page, along with a proper citation.
SOURCE: Flickr by electropod via Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
It wasn’t too difficult to track down the location of No Name Street, a brief connecting road in Sandwich, England. Google (Street View) confirmed that I’d found the proper spot. The author noted, "It’s only a little street, but surely they could have thought of a name for it", (and I agree!) to which someone responded, "If they had, what place would U2 have sung about?"
Feel free to listen to U2′s "Where the Streets Have No Names" released in 1987 on "The Joshua Tree" album, as you read through the rest of this article.
I began to experience déjà vu, like maybe I’d written about this situation before. That’s not an unexpected feeling after posting several hundred geo-oddity topics over several years on the Twelve Mile Circle. However I’m usually better at remembering what I’ve researched and published previously, plus I couldn’t find anything when I ran a search on all of the articles and comments ever posted.
Finally I found it on another website, the ever-beloved and much-missed Basement Geographer, which is currently on hiatus. Kyle had written about The Best of Newfoundland and Labrador Toponyms, Part III in July 2011, referencing an unusual location he uncovered known as Nameless Cove. The familiarity derived from a comment that I’d appended to his article. I guess it’s acceptable to quote myself from a different website, right?
We used to have an intramural athletic field called Nameless Field when I attended the University of Virginia. It was large enough for two games to be played simultaneously so it was split into portions: Upper Nameless and Lower Nameless. Yep, Google Maps says it’s still there.
I tend to agree with David’s contention that No Name (and it’s equally thoughtless variation, Nameless) gives Public Street a good run for the money when it comes to laziness. In fact I didn’t bother to create a map of every occurrence because they were so common. That right there should provide sufficient evidence of intellectual indolence. It forced me to focus on geographic units much larger than streets or roads.
The US Geological Survey’s Geographic Names Information System provided 595 instances of No Name. That’s a bit deceiving. I couldn’t find a way to extract the exact string so results included anything with a "name" contained within them. I had to remove a lot of religious properties (e.g., Holy Name, Jesus Name), for example. I also removed a lot of reservoirs, dams and wells where, for some reason, it was popular to call them something like No Name Dam Number X (fill in a sequential number) in certain states. Even so I found a lot of pure instances of names with no names, including 27 specific references to Nameless.
There were several other instances that I found even more interesting. They are all real geographic features recognized by the U.S. Government. I’ve provided map links based on lat/long coordinates listed in GNIS although they may not appear by those names (or at all) on Google Maps.
The Nameless Fire Department was entered into the Congressional Record by Hon. Bart Gordon on May 7, 1996: "Mr. Speaker, I am taking this opportunity to applaud the invaluable services provided by the Nameless Volunteer Fire Department. These brave, civic-minded people give freely of their time so that we may all feel safer at night…" Ten years later, according to Firefighting News, the Nameless Firefighters were "awarded a competitive grant through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant (AFG) Program. Nameless Volunteer Fire Department will receive $75,240."
It’s good to be back home although I will always cherish my brief journey to the Dust Bowl territory of the lower Great Plains. I enjoyed and appreciated the beauty of the emptiness, the towns appearing fifteen miles distant first noticeable by their distinctive grain elevators, dodging and getting caught in clouds of dust, and tracking a history that runs deep, of Native Americans, of pioneers, of financial and ecological hardships during the Great Depression.
People work hard here, making an honest living with their backs. They are farmers, truck drivers, oil workers, builders, wind turbine cowboys, and laborers of all stripes. I’ve never seen so many weathered, dusty, so very obviously workaday pickup trucks anywhere else. One also gets a sense that this land hasn’t yet recovered from the recession of the last decade and that times were probably tough for many of the folks even before that happened. I’ve never met a friendlier, more hospitable group of people though.
It seemed to track closely with populations of the various towns on our circuit:
Clayton, NM – population 2,980
Ulysses, KS – population 6,161
Dalhart, TX – population 7,930
Lamar, CO – population 8,869
Guymon, OK – population 11,442
Clayton and Ulysses practically rolled out the red carpet. Lamar and Guymon didn’t much notice our presence. Dalhart fell somewhere in the middle. I can imagine that a group dropping into town, occupying a bunch of hotel rooms on a random weekday in late winter, buying meals, and filling gas tanks would give a small town a nice little financial bump. Then our circus would head to the next small town and drop another windfall.
The Water is Down in Clayton Lake Reservoir
Every town, every hamlet, every place we wandered, people mentioned the drought. Examine the U.S. Drought Monitor and one will understand why. All of the towns we visited were considered "D4 Drought-Exceptional" or nearly that, and have been in a difficult situation for a long time. The conventional wisdom, the oft-repeated phrase in each town where we stopped was, "we’ve had less rain lately than the Dust Bowl years." I don’t know if that’s true or not although people living with the dry spell every day certainly believed it.
Those who settled here in the 1920′s and 1930′s were sometimes called "next year people" because they held a certain faith that conditions would improve, that rains would come, that life would get better if only they could last one more year. One person I spoke with suggested that the expression might have to be changed to "next decade people" because a single year didn’t seem like it would cut it anymore. We’re save from a new Dust Bowl only because of improved soil management techniques, center-pivot irrigation and millions of acres of restored grasslands.
I found I could track my travels via Google Analytics. I don’t get a lot of 12MC visitors from this very rural corner where Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico come together in such close proximity. I took a screenshot covering the five days we roamed the plains. Those are my dots. Maybe my recent travelogues will attract a few new visitors from these parts and I can begin to fill-in the map a little more.
Twitter seemed to work. I know that many of you subscribed to my new Twitter feed so you could follow along. I hope that you enjoyed watching the adventure unfold in near-real-time and getting a sneak peek at photos and stories that would be appear in more detail a day or two later on 12MC. Often I could send a tweet from literally the middle of nowhere because mobile phone coverage was surprisingly good. Every town had at least one cell tower and of course there weren’t any topographic features to deflect their signals; just flatness to the horizon.